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Amazing mountains deserve subsequent visits, and Mt. Ryozen is no exception. I became mesmerized by the Scottish feel of the summit plateau during my first climb on a frigid March morning, and dreamed of heading back in the autumn to take in the golden hues of the meandering grasslands. Noteworthy peaks are like a good bottle of bubbly – they are best shared and showed off to close counterparts, so I turned to my companions from the latest Gathering and settled upon a date in late November that just happened to coincide with a stable high pressure system.

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Miguel, Eri, Rika and I alighted at Samegai station in eastern Shiga Prefecture, where Paul D. was waiting with a warm smile and an eager look on his face. With such perfect weather at our disposal, such looks were well understood, as we were all itching to make full use of the brilliant daylight. The bus was set to depart in 15 minutes, leaving Eri just enough time to dash to the nearest convenience store to stock up on provisions for the long hike. From the bus stop to the summit, we faced a 7-1/2 km one-way hike, the first 4 kilometers of which were on a paved forest road will little to no vehicular traffic. We each hit the tarmac at our own pace, settling in on a rhythm while catching up the latest news. It was our first time to hike with Rika, a feisty Fukuoka native who had recently relocated to Kobe to work for Finetrack. Her sense of humor helped break up the monotony of walking on a road we easily could have driven in luxury.

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The waterfall route I had taken on my first visit was washed out in a typhoon some years ago, which necessitated our current, longer approach via the forgotten remains of Kuregahata village. The farming hamlet was home to 50 households during the Meiji era, but life was rough for the 245 inhabitants, as the winter snows brought accumulation of several meters, cutting off access to the larger towns of Maibara and Hikone. Residents slowly relocated to lower, drier ground over the ensuing years, until the strict food rations during World War II forced the remaining habitants to migrate towards the more populated enclaves. The final death blow was dealt soon after, as the local elementary school shuttered its doors and essentially hindered anyone to returning to settle. Nowadays the building foundations and vegetable fields provide campsites near the public-run mountain hut, which gives off an eerie, Blair Witch feel. We moved through the area swiftly, anxious to reach the warmth of the sun’s rays up on the ridge.

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The path switchbacks abruptly out of Kuregahata, reaching a mountain pass whose Kanji characters read “sweat wiping”. The name was most appropriate, for not only were we dabbing the sweat away from our brows, but we were also shedding excess layers under the pleasantly balm November temperatures. The trail hugs the ridge, with abrupt drops off the southern face towards the hissing sound of flowing water concealed by the burning foliage in full autumnal display. Our progress was brought to a halt more than once as nature put on a slideshow worthy of pause.

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I was beginning to worry about our snail’s pace up towards the summit plateau, for we still had quite a long way to go just to reach the ridge before an even longer traverse to the high point. There were just too many distractions along the way – a rusty shovel hidden among the freshly fallen leaves provided minutes of spontaneous role play opportunities that could just not be passed up. With such an amicable cast of characters to our unfolding drama, we took it all in stride as the vistas began to reveal their magical selves. Humble villages hugged the jigsaw shoreline of Japan’s largest freshwater lake, as a ring of rugged massifs encircled the cove, mimicking the masts of warships ready to set sail at the slightest sign of trouble. It was in these broad flatlands that Japan’s most intense struggle for unification took hold that ultimately ushered in the reign of the Tokugawa clan and the seclusionist policies of the Edo era.

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We paused at one such overlook, admiring the views when a party of three elderly hikers greeted us on their descent from the rocky plateau above. Upon ushering our greeting, the trio responded with an air of recognition, as if they were being reunited with a long-lost friend. “Didn’t we meet you on Mt. Amagoi?”, inquired the tallest of the three. During our ascent of a peak just across the valley, Paul and I did run into these good-natured folks, who informed us about the Suzuka 12, a supplementary list to the original Suzuka 7 mountains that included 5 extra peaks on the Shiga side of the range. This time around we posed for a commemorative photo before continuing on our push against the force of gravity.

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Soon the rolling hills of the true ridge came into view, and after a few switchbacks we left the trees behind and arrived on the summit of the first peak, marked by a signpost indicating that we were 70% of the way there. This proved an ample resting place for lunch, with a gentle breeze, unhindered views, and plenty of fresh peanut butter to go around. It would have been easy to give into temptation and laze around for a few hours, but summit fever soon took hold, as we pushed on towards the top.

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Looks can be quite deceiving, as the lack of tree cover revealed the surprisingly long ground we still had left to cover. I had come from the completely opposite direction on my first visit, so this was still virgin territory. After passing by an idyllic pond marked by a small shrine, the trail veered towards the right, rising steadily towards a parallel ridge line with ever-expanding views. At the crest of the knoll, the iconic hump of Mt. Ibuki came into full view, flanked on the right across a broad valley by the smoldering cap of Ontake. Closer at hand, the emergency hut stood guard, looking as if it were plucked from Grindelwald and plopped down on the soaring plateau. Mt. Ena held silent vigil across the subdued lowlands of Aichi, waiting patiently for the first flakes of snow to fall on the gentle curves of her sacred flank.

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Rika and I pushed out slightly ahead of the others, as we were soon approaching our 2pm turnaround time. The path dropped to a long saddle before the final steep push to the high point, offering panoramic views of the remainder of Suzuka’s foreshortened layer of contorted ridges. The summit boulders offered ample space for stretching out and taking in the splendid autumn views. From our eagle’s perch we tracked the progress of our fellow companions, tracing their outlines as they all successfully arrived on the top. We spent a few minutes taking in the wonderful scenery before reluctantly turning away for the long return to the bus stop. The final bus was at 5pm, which left us about 2-1/2 hours to cover the 7.5km descent. Just before pushing off a trip of French climbers arrived at the summit. They had heard about this hike from my very own Hiking in Japan website and were more than pleased with my recommendation.

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On the ascent, I spied a shortcut at the col that would shave about a half an hour off our descent and led our group on a narrow deer trail through the golden grasses. Our downward progress was steady but never felt rushed, and soon we regained the fiery foliage of the deciduous forest and slowed our pace to savor those fading tints of the waning season. Once back on the forest road we kept a constant eye on the clock, and with our perseverance we arrived back at the bus stop with just minutes to spare before the final bus of the day. At the station, the French trio we met on the summit came strolling in well after sundown. Perhaps I need to upgrade my difficulty rating on my website less one of my readers meet with ill luck.

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Mt. Isanago – The White Angel

Folk tales in Japan are contentious affairs, with small villages in various provinces each laying claim to the origins of the stories. The legend of Hagoromo is no exception. Did the tale of the feathered maidens originate in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the Noh play of the same name suggests, or does the hamlet of Ami in Ibaraki Prefecture provide the source of the myth? None of the above, if the opinions of the denizens of Kyoto Prefecture can be trusted, for here in the rural lowlands of ancient Tango Province lies the oldest known Hagoromo tale. According to the legend, eight celestial maidens swooped down to Manai spring on the slopes of Mt. Hiji for a bath. An elderly couple happened upon the women and managed to grab one of the dressing robes. The other seven flew away in fright, but the lone maiden concealed herself behind a tree, for she could not fly away without her winged robe, or hagoromo. The couple explained that they were unable to have a child, and suggested that the maiden come live with them. She accepted on the condition that her robe be returned to her. The maiden soon became skilled at making sake which had magical curative powers, and the family became rich. After 10 years the couple asked the maiden to return to heaven, but she did not want to leave. The story continues and has a rather sad ending for which I will leave it up to your imagination, as the focus of my attention on this particular February morning is on the mountain for which the tale takes place.

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While it no longer goes by its former name of Mt. Hiji, Mt. Isanago is a fitting place for the birth of a legend. Indeed, the panoramic vistas from its bald summer perch overlook the massif of Mt. Oe, itself steeped in the tales of Shuten-doji and the Japanese Oni. Isanago happened to be on my list of Kinki Hyakumeizan, which I hoped to finished before the end of this year. It would be mountain #96, but with the recent snows blanketing the northern part of the Kinki region, it would take particular planning and caution. I scoured the weather reports and was finally gifted a glorious high pressure system. I boarded that 6:09am local train, the same one that I had use for my assault on Mt. Taiko at the end of 2016. I once again changed at Fukuchiyama station to the Tango railway. Fukuchiyama was still draped in a cool, thick mist, bus as the carriage pushed past the slopes of Mt. Oe, the cloak magically lifted, revealing the weather forecast was true to its word. Instead of alighting at Amanohashidate, I pushed ahead to Mineyama station and jumped in a cab for the 20-minute ride to the trailhead.

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“There should be no problem getting to the trailhead”, quipped my enthusiastic driver, who was convinced that the road would be plowed and free of ice. The rising sun also brought a rise in the mercury, as the residents were once again able to hang out their laundry and bedding after the last couple of weeks of inclement weather. As I paid the fare, I noticed an elderly hiker exit from his car with snowshoes in hand. He paused at the entrance to the forest road to affix his bindings, as I inquired about his intended destination. It turns out he was also heading for Isanago and knew the trail very well. Perhaps this Hagoromo tale has a hint of truth after all.

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“Go on ahead”, I explained, “I’ll catch up to you.” It look me some time to sort through my kit and to strap on the snowshoes, but I soon took my first few steps on the half-crunchy, half-soggy crust of rotting snow. Each step resulted in a drop in altitude of several centimeters, as I pushed on as best I could under the less-than-ideal snow conditions. Still, the decision to bring the snowshoes was a wise one, for it prevented me from post-holing at every step. I soon caught up to my companion and pushed out in front in order to share trail-breaking duties. In the shadier parts of the road the snow surface was more conducive to movement, but at every bend in the forest road, the lane became exposed to the sun’s rays, turning the road into a wet, sloppy slush that hindered forward progress.

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Soon I reached a sign indicating the trailhead lay 1000 horizontal meters ahead. It had taken a herculean effort just to cover the first 750 meters, and the exertion forced lines of sweat from the pores of my forehead. I bit my lower lip and pushed on until reaching a small open-walled shelter and toilet block. I sank on a wooden bench and started peeling layers, downing my bottle of Aquarius while cross-referencing my progress against the GPS data. As I raised the viewfinder to my eye for a quick snap of my surroundings, I noticed the exposure seemed brighter than usual. I reached around to the polarizer to give it a turn and realized that it was not there. I double checked my pack to make sure it didn’t fall off when I was sorting through gear at the trailhead, but my search came up empty. I’d just have to resign myself to a filterless day and search for my missing equipment on the return route.

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My break was leisurely, and my companion soon took over the trailblazing duties while I ate an energy bar. We had only 300 meters to go until reaching the official start of the trail, so I quickly caught up and let him stay in the lead for now. He explained that in the summer, hikers can drive all the way to the terminus of this paved escarpment, which I found hard to fathom at the moment, considering a meter of snow separated us from the asphalt below. As a polite gesture, I was ushered back into the drivers seat and broke trail up the steepened contours of the spur. A signpost explained that 1000 steps stood between us and the summit, but they were completely buried under the deep drifts. Despite this, the path was easy to pick out, as there was a steep drop on my left and a steeper rise on my right – ripe conditions for a snowslide, so I moved with speed, staying within earshot of my partner in case the entire hillside gave way.

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The exposed traverse was shortlived and we soon reached a junction on the ridge. To our right, a marker pointed the way to the women’s pond, the remnants of the famed Manai spring from the Hagoromo tale. I knew the pond would be frozen over and the shifting contours of the opposing hillside looked anything but inviting, so I turned left instead, where the wind-swept south-facing aspects revealed fragments of the summer log stairs laying exposed to the warm sunlight. I could see about a dozen stairs before a series of snowdrifts took over, so the snowshoes stayed on for the tiptoed traverse over the snowless sections of the path. My partner kept a safe distance behind, wary of my weight potentially sending down large unstable sections of spring mush.

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I reached a break in the tree cover at the top of the next rise, where a wooden bench completely free of accumulated snowfall beckoned me over. I settled onto the rectangular block, taking in the vistas across the valley to a splendid 180-degree angle. On my left, the perfect conical form of Mt. Aoba rose up, lending it the appropriate nickname of Wakasa Fuji. Just to the right, the twin bulges of Mt. Yura stood tall over the Sea of Japan that was just out of view. Closer at hand, the entire rolling massif of the Oe mountains held fort, cutting off access to the eastern part of Kyoto Prefecture beyond. It was a place worthy of a brief respite, but soon the offer of a 360-degree view proved too difficult to refuse, so I rose to my feet for the final push.

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The slope angle inclined, and the increased exposure also meant increased snow depth. Occasionally even the snowshoe could not prevent me from sinking up to my thigh, as I had penetrated one of the gaps on the edge of the stair column and plunged into the void. Pulling myself out proved easy enough and I wasn’t about to give in so close to my target. Further up the pitch eased, and a stone marker with ancient Kanji characters informed me that the summit was indeed near. A gentle traverse to the left, followed by a few kicks up the final mound and victory was ours.

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We sat down for lunch on a rock formation that just happened to have melted out of its winter hold, as if a maître d’ had been sent up earlier to clear a table of two. Or perhaps it was that feathered maiden looking after us. “The name’s Sakamoto”, explained my host “and I live over there”, pointing to the village at the foot of Mt. Yura. He was as impressed with my knowledge of Kyoto’s peaks as he was with my climbing resume. If he was in charge of hiring I would have gotten the job for sure. Sakamoto belongs to a local mountaineering club, but admits that he enjoys a nice balance between the larger group excursions and the solo endeavors.

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Lunch was soon finished, and Sakamoto and I were left with the tricky descent back to the junction, for the warm temperatures were making the snow even mushier. I cut switchbacks in the steep slope, and once we reached the first bare patch of dirt we took the snowshoes off completely, as the postholing actually improved our purchase and prevented a long, potentially dangerous slide. Once back at the junction the snowshoes went back on and we retraced our steps to the trailhead. The road back to his car was also a lot smoother on the descent, and just before reaching the pavement again, I found my camera filter lying in a patch of snow. Sakamoto gave me a ride back to Mineyama station, where I settled in for an afternoon nap before arriving back in Osaka in time for dinner. Peak #96 was now in the bag, but the final 4 peaks are perhaps the most challenging of all, especially with the particularly white winter. Perhaps I will wait until the spring.

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The Gathering V

It’d been a rough summer for everyone, especially when the news trickled down from the slopes of the Eiger. We’d lost one of our own, a member of our extended family who had attended the second and fourth meetings of the mountaineering minds. I knew this one would be for Michal, but where would be the best place? Back at Kamikochi, where I first had the pleasure of meeting him? Or a return to Suzuka, which turned out to be our very last encounter?

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The answer, it turned out, proved to be none-of-the-above, as Rie put forth a location in southern Nagano by the name of Jimbagatayama. The 1400-meter summit affords views of both the Minami and Chuo Alps, two places that were like a second home to our fallen hero. Rie, Miguel, Eri, Paul, Naresh, Tomomi and I settled on a date in early November and commenced with the all-important preparation.

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On Friday, November 4th, I boarded an early evening train to Nagoya to crash on Paul’s floor. Being based in Chubu would save an early morning train ride at the crack of dawn and allowed the two of us to catch up since last hiking together during Golden Week. Paul was busy preparing two pots of chili in the kitchen and I jumped right in to offer assistance. Between stirs of the simmering chili pot, Paul told me a little about his trip to Kyrgyzstan and his other recent mountaineering endeavors. He set up the computer as we accessed Michal’s Vimeo account and downloaded all of his self-shot and edited videos for use at the next day’s event.

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Rie showed up at our door at 7am the following morning. Paul shared some banana cake that the Yamaholic had sent him in thanks for the laptop he’d sent to her. Unfortunately, the Yamaholic would be unable to attend this year’s gathering, but her presence was felt with every bite of our morning meal.  We loaded the kit into the back of Rie’s car and sped off to the bakery to pick up focaccia sandwiches and other finger bites from a local bakery. Before heading to Nagano, we needed to help Rie recce the highest mountain in Kasugai city for an upcoming school excursion. Never underestimate a 400 meter mountain. What looked like a small hill from the parking lot turned out to be a lot tougher than initially thought. The trail climbs to the ridge and then follows the Tokai Shizen Hodo for a while before topping out on the summit of Mt. Miroku, which afforded hazy vistas of Ontake and Hakusan.

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Once back at the car, we drove under Enasan and into Nagano Prefecture towards Jimbagata. Due to a bit of miscommunication, we detoured slightly to Komagane to pick up Joseph, who just managed to squeeze into the back seat among all of our warm weather camping gear. Rie navigated the tight switchbacks of the forest road with ease, as we pulled into the barricaded path to the campground entrance. Miguel had warned us on an earlier message that parking would be extremely limited due to construction on part of the campground. The Hiking in Japan members sprung into action, and with everyone’s assistance we had our cache of gear hauled into camp. Shelters were set up on an attractive stretch of grass on the edge of the plateau.

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While the weather still held, I gathered up the troops for the short walk to the summit of Jimbagata, where we admired the views and gathered around the lens for a group photo. En route I ran into Ian Kerr, a fellow hiking enthusiast and fellow member of the Hiking in Japan group who happened to be on the mountain by chance. He gladly joined us on the summit and we had an opportunity to chat a bit about the mountains. With over 1700 members of the Facebook community, you’re bound to run into fellow armchair mountaineers wherever you go.

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The panoramic views coaxed us into peak-dropping, as our fingers pointed to mountains on the horizon. The entire Minami and Chuo Alps were visible from our perch, sans Hououzan and Kai-koma, which were concealed behind the broad flank of Mt. Senjo. Members eventually trickled back down to camp in order to commence meal preparations. Tomomi had yet to arrive, so we couldn’t start the campfire since we were waiting for her portable fireplace to arrive – open fires are not permitted on the plateau in order to preserve the delicate ecosystem. An emergency hut stands adjacent to the tent sites, and it would make for a great refuge in foul weather if not for the scaffolding surrounding its sturdy walls. The hut is currently undergoing renovations, and rumor has it that the new hut will be staffed and will charge for future accommodation.

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The sun began to drop behind the Chuo Alps, which sent us all into a frenzy to catch the alpenglow on the Minami Alps. Naresh broke out his camera, as Paul contemplated doing a time lapse shot, but decided that the scenery was too good to capture with just one shot. Just at the brilliant hues of crimson and ochre reached their climax, my phone vibrated with news that Tomomi and Midori had arrived. I dropped back down to the campsite and recruited a few members to help us all ferry the supplies to camp. Since the regular parking lot was closed for renovations, it was a long walk of about 8 minutes from the temporary lot to the campsite, but we all pitched in without the slightest bit of hesitation. Alastair had to regretfully head back to Lake Suwa for a soccer game the following morning, which must have been a difficult decision as the celebration was just getting started.

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By now our small camp was thriving with activity. Guacamole was being prepared by Bjorn and company, while Rie cooked savory garlic ajillo over the campstove. Paul stirred the chili while Miguel got started on the campfire. Tomomi and Baku mixed the greek salad as Midori broke out the bottles of Nagano wine for all of us to sample. The drop of the sun behind the horizon sent the temperatures plummeting, which in turn sent us all scrambling for extra layers of clothing and jostling for a smoke-free space around the campfire. The wind kept changing directions, so we all had our bouts of smoke inhalation. When the fiery coals built up enough, Tomomi stuck the dutch oven on the fire while Paul set up the laptop. We streamed Michal’s videos and reflected on the inspiration he provided to us all. I had brought a framed photo of Michal that Paul set up in an empty chair. It still felt like a dream to us, like Michal was just out on a holiday and would be back any day now. Three months is still too early to get over the loss of a loved one, but we knew that Michal would still want us to carry on, to live life to the fullest and to spend quality time with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. When I first set up the Hiking in Japan community on Facebook, I truly thought it would just be a way to promote my website. Little did I know that it would take on a life of its own and would serve as a catalyst to bring a core group of hikers together to share their experiences and create everlasting memories.

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After an hour or so, Tomomi took the dutch oven off the fire and opened the lid to reveal baked chicken, potatoes, onions that were cooked to perfection. Just as in the previous four gatherings, we had way more food than could possibly be finished by us all, but it’s much better to be over-prepared than to come up short-handed. We barely had room for Smores, but a few token sandwiches were made with Naresh’s jumbo-sized marshmallows. Viviana made a guest appearance via Skype while we passed the phone around. With bellies threatening to burst, several of us left the comfort of the campfire to re-climb the summit of Jimbagata in search of meteors. The Leonids were just beginning their annual celestial display, and with the sunken crescent moon, the stargazing conditions were prime. We craned our necks and managed to see a dozen or so of the shooting stars over the course of 90 minutes or so. Paul was particularly apt at finding the streaking light as I always seemed to be looking in the wrong part of the sky. Still, we had fun trying to play with the camera settings to capture the night spectacle.

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Sometime after midnight, we all retreated to the warmths of our sleeping bags. I collapsed almost immediately, and the next morning I was one of the last to rise. The sleeping bag was much too warm to squirm out of to enjoy the sunrise, so I laid under the tarp while the early risers prepared breakfast and stoked the fire back to life. Joseph set up a coffee bar in the corner of the sheltered cooking area while Miguel and Rie made hot panini sandwiches. Bjorn worked the griddle magic and passed fresh pancakes around to all. Eri cooked scrambled eggs over the campfire. Everyone was pitching in to cook something except me. I was selfishly wondering around in a bit of a daze, too exhausted and clumsy to be able to lend anyone a hand, something for which I regret. Naresh made fresh chai for everyone until being interrupted by an urgent telephone call. He had a serious, troubled look on his face. I sensed that he had just been the recipient of some bad news.  It turns out he had a family emergency and needed to get back to Tokyo as early as possible. We rearranged for Bjorn and family to ride with Midori while I helped Naresh gather his belongings and saw him off as he sped back to Tokyo.

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The first rays of warm sunshine filtered through the campsite, which put us all in a bit of a lazy trance. We were all having way too much fun and didn’t want it to end. The cleanup began slowly at first, as we all put off the inevitable. We managed to break down camp shortly before noon and posed for one last group photo before disbanding. Paul, Rie, and I headed back to Nagoya but not before stopping on the banks of the Tenryu river for one final glimpse of the Chuo Alps. Miguel and Rie also stopped by, as Paul brought back our juvenile spirit by showing us the best way to roll down a grass embankment.

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All in all it was another successful event, that never would have been possible without everyone’s assistance and support. I tend to put off making a decision about the annual gathering until the last minute, too distracted and sidetracked by other things going on in my life. In an effort to amend this, Paul suggest we make a decision about the 2017 gathering while we had the momentum.  With the Banff Mountain Film Festival making its tour of Japan in September, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tether our annual gathering to this unique collection of film shorts. And since Hakuba hosts the festival in a rare open-air theater, it seemed like our next gathering was just destined to stay in Nagano. And so it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy New Year

Happy Year of the Rooster to everyone out there. Since the Chinese characters for this year are the same as bird (鳥), I leave you with a photo of a mountain that will likely see a surge in climbers this year. Can anyone guess the peak?

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Mt. Taiko – Summit to Sea

At the northern tip of Kyoto Prefecture, an oblong peninsula juts out into the Sea of Japan like a thumb looking to hitch a ride. This is the Tango Peninsula, a relatively untouched area dotted with secluded beaches, idyllic hot springs, and jovial locals who’ve settled into the slower pace and laid back atmosphere generally reserved for those living along the South China Sea. I’d been here once before during my quest to climb the Kansai 100, and here again I found myself on a mission to conquer Mt. Taiko, the highest summit in the entire peninsula.

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As is usually the case, getting there would pose the biggest challenge. I had long since written off the mountain as impossible to visit without a car, but subsequent net surfing revealed a bus stop at the mouth of Saigawa river that was within walking distance of the summit, if you considered a 10-km walk along a winding forest road to be walking distance that is. I had the schedule nailed down and had even virtually walked the first part of the route using the streetview function of Google maps. A high pressure system settled over the Hokuriku region, which promised favorable walking conditions in an area that is a magnet for wet precipitation most of the year.

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The train pulled out of Osaka station at 6:10am, chugging along the foggy tracks towards Fukuchiyama, where the Tango Tetsudo chauffeured the dozen passengers to Miyazu station, the terminus of the bus for Saigawa. Trouble was, the train was running behind schedule, meaning I would miss my connecting bus and have no way of making it to the trailhead without dropping yen on a budget-breaking taxi. The train was only 3 minutes behind schedule, so instead of alighting at Miyazu, I continued along to Amanohashidate station, where the bus was next scheduled to stop. Fortunately, the train was faster than the bus, and I had a few extra minutes to spare before boarding bus #9 and settling into a seat near the back. The ride took nearly 45 minutes, during which time I fueled up on energy bars and studied the paper maps courtesy of old man Google. It was nearly 10:30 in the morning by the time I put rubber sole to asphalt, and I had a really long way to go.

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Road walks can really be a drag. Just read any of the posts on Notes from the ‘Nog to get an indication on how pedestrian-unfriendly Japan’s byways can truly be. Once you’re off the main roads and onto the village lanes and forest tracks, however, the going becomes a lot more pleasant on both the metatarsals and the eyes. I made good time up route 625 past Tenchoji temple and its rustic village slumbered down for the winter. At a fork in the road sat a shelter housing a fresh water spring. I paused briefly to rest the haunches and check my bearings. This was as far as the Google truck had driven, so from here on out I needed to rely on the GPS. Forest roads branched out towards the mountains above, and after a few twists and turns I breached the ridge of the mountains and officially commenced the ascent towards Tango’s lofty heights. While 683 meters may not seem like a tall peak, it all depends on perspective. Mt. Taiko is taller than any mountain in both Okinawa and Chiba Prefectures, and it’s only 300 meters lower than the tallest mountain in all of Kyoto.

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After reaching the ridge, the vistas opened up towards the north, as a fortress of mountains lined the horizon , like a battalion of soldiers standing guard to keep unwanted visitors away. I would have to go up and over these peaks just to get within striking distance of Mt. Taiko. My heart sank as I suddenly realized the formidable task that lie ahead of me. Could I even make it to the top before dark? How on earth would I be able to return to Osaka in time for work the following morning? I continued on in silence, hoping that I could somehow muster up the courage and energy to continue.

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Just as things started to look bleak, the unmistakable rumble of an automobile echoed from the valley below. The sound crescendoed until the utility van was on my heels. I leaped to the shoulder of the narrow road, stretching my thumb out on pure instinct. The vehicle halted its forward momentum as I opened the passenger’s side door. “Where are you going”, asked the white-haired man, dressed in a blue forestry uniform. “Mt. Taiko,” came my reply, in as soft and nonthreatening voice as I could muster up. “Hop in”, said the man.

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After the initial shock of finding someone crazy enough to walk up an abandoned forest road, my saviour explained about the area and the lack of employment opportunities. “I came up here to check on the work of my employees”, gestured the logging company president, as we drove past one patch of cedar forest that he had come to check on. The timber had been felled, cut, and stacked into clean piles just as was ordered by the boss. “Timber is so cheap nowadays that people no longer enter the logging industry.”  Seizing the opportunity, I inquired about the future of this clear-cut area, wondering if he’d be replanting it with cedar trees per the government protocol. “No, I’ll just let the natural forest reclaim it.”

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In spite of the paved road to the top, there was a surprisingly large amount of native broadleaf remaining on the slopes of the mountain. I suppose that most of the prefectural coffers were invested in the prominent Kitayama cedar trees that still fetch a high price on the market. Any trip immediately north of Kyoto city will reveal the extent of the destruction of the native flora, as enormous mountains of cedar cut off the sunlight and blanket the city with giant plumes of suffocating pollen in the late winter. Luckily, the further north you get from the city, the lighter the destruction.

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As we rose up towards the Tango highlands, large swaths of fresh snow covered the shaded parts of the road, prompting a bit of careful navigation from my driver, and a bit of excitement in seeing my first fresh snowfall of the winter. By the time we reached Swiss Mura ski village the entire slopes were blanketed in 10 centimeters of soft white crystal. I thanked my driver profusely and shouldered the pack for the short climb to the high point, which sat at the terminus of the highest ski lift. Rather than trudging through the banal contours of the open slopes, I stuck to the forested sections of the southeastern face of the mountain, carving a trail through the untracked powder until reaching a set of footprints from another visitor earlier that day. I followed those tracks until they ended in a thicket of undergrowth that was choking the hillside and had me second-guessing my decision to avoid the easy way up. Pushing my way through the virtual maze, I eventually skirted the southern edge of the ski lift and popped out in the grasslands just below the summit. When I reached the top I glanced at my watch to discover that it was exactly high noon.

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Sitting in a dry patch of yellow grass under the lift, I soaked in the warm midday rays and filled my belly with provisions. I was planning on walking all the way back down to the sea and I needed some heavy calories for the descent. Resting for only 15 minutes, I once again geared up for the long walk back to civilization, as I knew my chances of encountering another car were slim to none. Sliding my way back to the forest road, I took off on a brisk walking pace, following the prints of deer, boar, stoat, and fox as they led me further down the slopes. I soon reached the edge of the snow line and could now catch sight of the sea which still seemed an absurdly long way away. I couldn’t believe that I thought it a good idea to go from sea to summit and back again in only one day. If not for the extra help it surely would not have been possible.

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When I reached the clear cut area that we passed earlier I checked my watch to find that it read 1pm. In 45 minutes I had covered roughly a third of the distance, so I set a new goal for myself – the 2:15 bus.

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I stepped it into high gear, keeping a 6km-an-hour pace until slowing down a bit once I felt some blisters starting to form. The recent hiking shoes I had bought in the early autumn were just a bit too small for my feet, and my hopes of fully breaking them in were a failure. With such a tight schedule to keep, there was no time to rest just yet. Familiar landmarks I had passed on the climb now came into sight, as I had now reached the area that I had covered before being given the ride. I pushed on in agony, as each footfall triggered my sensory system to render messages to my brain to slow the pace. Finally, the water source at the junction of route 625 came into view. I trotted the last 50 meters before collapsing on a rock bench just in front of the spring. I immediately took off my shoes and socks to let my feet air out as I shuffled through the pack for the moleskins and band aids. I polished off the sports drink as well as a couple of energy bars and a block of chocolate. By the time I finished mending my feet it was approaching 1:45pm. Could I really make this bus?

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I remember that it had taken me about 45 minutes to climb up to the junction, so there was still a chance of accomplishing my goal, but I’d need to push a 7km per hour pace to do it. Nevermind the wincing pain at every advancing step. I bit my lower lip and set off in a half trot, half skip down the paved road. I soon passed by a small temple I had seen on the way. As I looked over at the stone steps rising up to the main sanctuary, a patch of red caught my eye. A troupe of macaques were sunning themselves on the stairs, as if taunting me to take photos of them. There are rare occasions where I will turn down a photo op but this was one of them. I was going to make this bus, posing monkeys or not.

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The final 10 minutes of the walk were a blur, but I somehow mustered up the energy to kick it into a full-on jog, as the sea grew closer and closer. Alas, I reached the bus stop with just minutes to spare, dropping my pack and tearing off my shoes in search of pain relief. I sat slumped in the comforting cushions of the bus seat, finally being able to take in the enormity of my quest. What surely should have been the easiest of the Kinki Hyakumeizan became one of the physically hardest and mentally toughest mountain to date. I’m not sure how many more of these lightning ascents I can take. Luckily for me, there are only 5 more mountains on the list.

Sandwiched between the Omine mountains and Odai-ga-hara, a pyramidal massif juts up towards the sky as if constructed by the ancient Egyptians. Known in English as the peak of the white beard, I had a hard time finding any information about Mt. Shirahige apart from a brief listing in an out-of-print guidebook. A quick perusal through the Japanese blogosphere revealed a path from the west in relatively good condition with a caveat about a sawtooth ridge with plenty of exposure. With old man winter rearing its ugly head, I seized one final chance to knock off another mountain before the deep snowfalls sealed off access.

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Nao and Tomoko picked me up at Yamato-kamiichi station in rural Nara Prefecture on a brisk Saturday morning in mid-December. The station sits on a small incline affording views of Mt. Yoshino across the valley. The rest of the Omine range lay thick in a murky cloud as I reached into the pack for an extra layer to stave off the chilly breeze. The couple were fresh off their summer ascent of Kilimanjaro and Nao was keen to knock off another mountain on the Kinki 100 list. If successful, it would be my 94th and his 82nd peak respectively.

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At a bend in the narrow forest road, a sign pointed the way towards our target peak. We parked the car on a narrow shoulder and shouldered our packs shortly after. The howling wind left little time for loitering or contemplating. The first part of the route followed a forest road that has fallen into disuse. You’ll find hundreds of such roads carving their way through 90% of Japan’s mountainous terrain. This particular one had been constructed over half a century earlier for the construction of a small water station to pump clean mountain water to the residents of Kawakami village at the foot of the mountain.

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We made slow but steady progress as the road gave way to mountain path, which followed the waters upstream to the base of a 30-meter high waterfall that was little more than a trickle. The route veered south, cutting up and around this fall via a long and somewhat exposed traverse. Ropes in places reminded us to keep our footing firm, as any slip here would prove fatal. Despite the lack of foot traffic the trail was easy to find, perhaps due in large part to the dead undergrowth that likely swallows the path in the warmer months. Moving steadily through the neatly manicured strands of planted cedar and cypress, we soon rose above the valley floor, with the Omine range looking on from across the valley directly behind us. The massif was slumbered inside a baleful tempest of wintry cloud, the bottom edge of the icy trees peeking out from under the fog like a child’s foot sticking out from underneath the covers.

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I pushed ahead towards the junction on the ridge while Nao stayed behind with Tomoko, who was struggling a bit with knee pain. At the crest of the ridge I faced the full force of the wind pushing in from the east and ducked behind a cedar tree for cover. I stuffed a few morsels of chocolate into my dry mouth, washing it down with a cupful of hot water from the thermos, the one piece of gear I never leave at home during these brisk days. Once the warmth returned to my extremities, I munched  on a pair of Calorie Mate bars, the preferred snack of choice here for hikers. Each bar holds exactly 100 calories, and has the consistency of Scottish shortbread. If you shows signs of being under-hydrated, the dry morsels will stick to your palate, forcing you to wash them down with a big gulp of water. I really should consider buying stock in Otsuka, or at least seeing if they’ll sponsor me. The pharmaceutical giant also manufacturers Pocari Sweat sports drink, which has left more than a few visitors wondering about the identity of Mr. Pocari and his magic perspiration.

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Once Nao and Tomoko caught up, I pushed ahead towards the first peak of Ko-Shirahige. The path immediately scaled a near-vertical root-infested precipice, sending me gasping for breath in the sub-arctic temperatures. Thinking that the summit lie at the top of the next rise, I pushed even harder, only to realize that it was indeed just one of half a dozen false peaks along the sabertooth ridge. The cedar trees yielded to a healthy forest of beech and other hardwoods coated with a thin layer of hoarfrost from the fog that lapped at the eastern side of the ridge. Just below the summit of Little White Beard, I encountered an elderly man dressed in orange who was making his way down from the top. He assured me that despite the state of the tree branches, the trail was free from ice and snow, which put me at ease. This would be no place to be caught without a pair of crampons. I told the man to relay a message to Nao and Tomoko who were somewhere below me. I was making a summit push, knowing that they would probably abandon their attempt due to their slower pace.

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Instead of taking a break at the top of Ko-Shirahige, I pushed on, dropping down the northern face of the mountain. Through the gap in the trees I caught a glimpse of the summit plateau of Shirahige drifting in and out of the swift-moving cloud. The elderly gentleman earlier said he’d been robbed of a view earlier, but my barometer showed a steady rise in atmospheric pressure that would hopefully mean a lift in the clouds. The path dropped to a saddle no wider than a size 10 boot. Ropes draped across both sides of the knife-edge ridge as I leaped across and onto a wider section of path. The trail rose abruptly up the other side before dropping once again towards another peak along the ridge that looked more like the recent stock market fluctuations than a mountain ridge.

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After another couple of false peaks, the summit pyramid came into sight. It was now free of cloud and looked like a long-lost sibling of Mt. Takazuma and Mt. Ishizuchi, two of Japan’s more prominent peaks.

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I couldn’t help thinking that if Kyūya Fukada had climbed this mountain, he surely would have chosen this mountain over its close neighbor Odai-ga-hara for inclusion in the Hyakumeizan. Indeed, the Hokuriku native did not have a lot of first-hand knowledge of the mountains of Kansai. I’m sure he would have been delighted to catch sight of White Beard Mountain truly living up to its name.

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Reaching the summit in an exhausted heap, I perched down on the lee side of the summit, with vistas to the north all the way to Osaka city. Ice had formed in my water bottle as a quick check of my thermometer revealed temperatures well below freezing, which would explain the rime ice. I pulled my phone out of a side pocket and tried calling Nao to let him know that I had safely reached the summit. He didn’t pick up though, which meant his photo was probably stowed away deep in his pack.

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I dug into my bento lunch, sipping hot water in between bites of cold food. Even though I hardly had an appetite, I forced the food down, knowing that it would help keep me warm and it would supply vital energy on the return leg. Occasionally the wind would pick up and send an arctic gust through all three layers of clothing. After the third such gust, I shouldered the gear and started to set off back down towards Ko-Shirahige, when a flash of red caught my eye. Nao had popped out of the ridge below and reached the summit. He hugged each other and he suggested I start down ahead of him. Instead, I re-joined him on the top and used the opportunity to force more nutrients into my stomach. We took a summit shot together and then admired the vistas towards both the Omine range and Oda-ga-hara, both of which were still concealed in cloud.

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After just a few minutes of rest, Nao was ready to head back down. Tomoko had retreated just below the summit of Ko-Shirahige, and we were both keen to head back as quickly as we could. The trek back to Little White Mountain had taken just as long as the ascent, as we marveled at how far we had come earlier. The vistas towards the Daiko range had now opened up, as the cloud lifted from Mt. Azami and Mt. Myojin, two peaks I’d scaled during warmer, greener times.

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We reached the car at 3pm, just 5-1/2 hours after setting out. Most hikers take at least 6 hours for the climb, but the freezing weather ensured our brisk pace. The mountain truly lived up to its name and reputation, and  a repeat visit is in order, but the next time around it’ll be during the warmer months when I can appreciate the mountain on my own terms instead of letting Mother Nature dictate.

 

Finding time

Things have been a bit quiet here on the blog, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been busy. Michal’s tragic passing caught me off guard and literally took the wind out of my creative sails. I owe it to him to continue exploring the hidden depths of this land and to continue reporting on those summit cloaked in obscurity.

In the meantime, I continue work on an exciting guidebook project on the Japan Alps, and will create a new ‘behind the scenes’ series about it here on Tozan Tales. The last 6 months have involved revisiting a few long-lost alpine peaks, as well as exploring the surround hills in search of that perfect vista. I leave you with an image from one of those missions, which would undoubtedly make Peter Skov proud.

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Mt. Warusawa (L) and Mt. Akaishi (R), as seen from Mt. Jimbagata

Mt. Ootō – Unwelcome guests

Maybe it was the report from NHK about the Ootō mountains that concerned me. With an annual rainfall average of 4000 mm, the mountain range tucked away in central Wakayama Prefecture is only slightly drier than Odaigahara, one of Kansai’s wettest places. The frequent rains and high humidity provide the perfect habitat for the yamahiru, or Japanese mountain leech. Trip reports from other bloggers recommended that hikers best avoid the Ootō mountains during the warm summer months. Perhaps Ayako and I were tempting fate with our plan for an early June ascent, but with only 4 mountains left on the list, it was now or never.

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Ayako picked me up at Gobo station just before 10am as the last of the morning mists were starting to burn off for the day. The asphalt still lay heavy from the overnight rains as she pointed the car east, away from the coastal sea spray and deep into the heart of Wakayama Prefecture. Most guidebooks recommend an ascent from the east through a narrow gorge that follows the headwaters of the Koza river, but this access route required an additional two hours of driving, time that we simply could not afford to lose. My map showed an alternative approach up the northern face of the massif, a straight shot along a winding forest road just off of route 371. It was this same junction that we passed back in March on our maiden ascent of Hansamine. It took nearly two hours of navigating an incredibly twisted and thin slice of concrete to reach an unmarked gate that led to the start of the hike.

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We stepped out into the refreshingly brisk air, sorting through kit between bites of rice balls and energy bars. We’d need those calories for the 700-meter vertical elevation gain spread out over just a couple of kilometers. The clouds still hung tightly to the ridge somewhere high above us, but a rise in the pressure on my barometer indicated a favorable window for the afternoon climb. The first part of the approach was along an abandoned forest road following a swift-moving mountain stream. The path terminated at a pair of cryptomeria trees estimated to be over half a century in age. Between the gap in the trees a small shrine has been erected, along with a signpost indicating that the towering cedar has been selected as one of the ‘100 Forest Giants of Japan‘.

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The path started just opposite this old growth relic. I took the lead, tramping through the soft cedar needles still damp from the incessant rains of late. With my trekking pole gripped tightly in my left hand, I reached the first switchback, no more than 15 meters away from the forest road. In that short space of time, barely 30 seconds by my watch, a mountain leech had jumared up my trekking pole and latched onto my left index finger. It was tiny, less than the length of a toothpick, but the grip it had on my cuticle required the force of both the thumb and index finger of my right hand to remove the blood-sucking creature. Fortunately it had only latched on to the nail and had not started extracting blood.

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Ayako jumped back in surprise as I flicked the leech back to the forest floor. It was early in the season, and the segmented worms has just awoken from their winter slumber, eager for a taste of fresh blood. “If we run into any more then we’ll turn around”, I proclaimed, setting her mind at ease ever so slightly. Constant vigilance is required to spot the mountain leeches. They can not only climb up your trekking poles and trousers but they can also abseil from the foliage above, landing on your neck for a vampire-esque attack. Such sustained scanning is exhausting, but I was determined not to let out unwanted guests get the upper hand.

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Tightening the dials on my boa laces, I tucked my hiking pants snug against my boots, creating a makeshift gaiter that would hopefully keep the leeches from getting inside my shoes. The system seemed to work, for a few hundred meters higher up the valley, I caught another leech in mid-ascent of my thigh and easily plucked it off my beige hiking pants. I decided not to disclose my discovery to Ayako, hoping that we’d be out of the leech zone once we breached the ridge. It was a steady climb of about an hour before we did reach the ridge. Just before topping out a leech had dropped from a branch above and landed on my arm, I made quick work of it before it could gain purchase.

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We took our first break when the contours flattened out, near an unnamed peak that the map simply calls ‘849’ in reference to its altitude. The crux of the climb was over, or so we thought. Even though we only had 300 meters of vertical elevation, the first thing the trail did was to drop 100 vertical meters to a saddle, where we greeted the northern face of the mountain head on. It was an improvised scramble up a root-infested spur for the better part of an hour. The only saving grace in the slog were the vistas opening up directly in back – the low-lying cloud had finally risen.

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In spite of the pitch, the route was clearly marked with red tape affixed to the trees, and it was simply a matter of using the exposed roots as a natural staircase to inch our way towards the summit plateau. At the top of the rise we reached an unmarked junction, where our alternative path merged with the main path on the true ridge of the Ootō range. After dropping to a saddle, we faced one final, steep climb through a network of net and wire fences erected to keep the deer at bay.

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Such fencework seems overkill, but the western and southern faces of the summit plateau have been destroyed by the deer, who have killed the trees by stripping them of bark. In addition, they’ve eaten all the seedlings, which prevents any new trees from growing in these grassy areas. Unheeded, these open areas allow more sunlight, wind, and heat to penetrate the summit plateau, which is causing stress on the beech, fir, and hemlock trees that still keep a watchful eye on the forest floor. Such post-war cedar plantations failed to penetrate the upper reaches of the massif, thanks in no small part to the Taisho-era government, who back in 1924 designated the Ootō mountains as a protected forest.

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The destruction of the trees on the summit did have one positive effect, however, as visitors can now get a bird’s eye view of the entire Ootō range. Peering over the fence, I could follow the contours of the ridge all the way over to Mt. Hōshi, just one of three remaining mountains on the Kansai 100 list. If I had more time I could simply work my way over there, but with the leech season in full swing, it seemed better to wait.

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On the return descent back to the car, the afternoon heat had dried the trail, sending the leeches back into the burrows on the bottom of the forest floor, so the blood-suckers were nowhere in sight. Peak #97 of the 100 was now in the books, and with just a trio of peaks standing in my way, I now had a clear shot of finishing before the end of the year.

 

 

Dreaming in Clouds

“It was supposed to be the last climb of the season. The mountaineering masterpiece. The culmination of everything I have learned and done in the mountains up till this point. The myth shattering feat, proving my point of pure alpinism, unhindered by man-made rules and paradigms.

Except that it wasn’t meant to be.”

– Michal Vojta, March 2016

Thought the above words were written about a winter ascent of the Gendarme in the Kita Alps, they could apply to any one of Michal Vojta’s outstanding achievements in which he continued to up the ante. Whether it be the frozen southern face of Mt. Inamura in the Omine mountains, or the impossibly long day-climb of Chinne on the Tsurugi massif, Michal was always pushing the boundaries to the extreme limit, for the ultimate thrill and satisfaction.

Yet, the 29-year old Czech native never boasted about his achievements, at least not publicly. He let his phenomenal self-shot and self-edited videos do the talking for him. The most recent video dates from May and shows the direction in which the budding mountaineer was heading:

You could easily spend an afternoon with his video channel on autoplay, living vicariously through his thrilling climbs and pioneering ascents. He preferred going solo instead of roping up in a team. A bad experience from Ichinokurasawa on Tanigawa-dake sealed the deal. Instead of having to follow the orders of the senpai and seeing his opinion continually ignored because he was the kohai, Michal favored the flexibility and freedom of going to the mountains alone, where the only direction came from inside, the mind providing the voice of reason instead of the stubbornness of a team leader.

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I first met Michal soon after my winter mountaineering accident in the spring of 2013. Tomomi, Nao, Ted, Miguel and I embarked on the famed Rock Garden walk in Kobe and we invited him along for the climb. Having not heard back from him, we assumed that he’d be unable to attend, but at the Kazafuki-iwa lookout, there he stood, alongside his Vietnamese wife Thuy, welcoming us with open arms and tagging along for the descent back down to Okamoto station. We all came to know Michal from the Hiking in Japan community on Facebook for which he was one of the earliest members, and it was a pleasure to put a face with a name so to speak, getting to know someone in the physical, as opposed to cyber, form.

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A few months later, Michal joined us for the 2nd Hiking in Japan gathering in Kamikochi. He showed up a day early on Friday evening and sat with us around the campfire, sharing a bit of details about his life. He had come to Japan from The Czech Republic to study Japanese, landing a part-time job at Montbell to both earn an income and surround himself with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. He was soft-spoken, preferring to sit back and absorb the conversation and always seemed to know when to chime in with an insightful comment. He was as elusive in his thoughts and feelings as he was in his climbing plans, and as he left the campfire, his only words were “I have to get up early tomorrow.”

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Little did we know he was about to climb the northern ridge of Mae-hotaka, along a spiny route scaling 7 different peaks before reaching the apex of the 3090-meter mountain. From there he descended via Dakesawa and slithered back into camp, joining the festivities as if he had just stepped off the bus. He was a keen observer and listener, shooting footage of the event ala James Benning.

As the winter snows settled on the archipelago, I was invited on an ascent of Mt. Sanjō in the Omine mountains. Although I could not embark on the snowy climb, I did join Michal, Thuy, and a few other friends for a Nepalese dinner before heading back to Michal’s apartment near Nagai Park for tea. The cozy apartment and Thuy’s warm hospitality made me feel right at home, and although I could not join the hike, I could share the sense of excitement that draws Michal to the higher and more challenging peaks in Japan.

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As the wintry snow gave way to the first thaws of spring 2015, I noticed less and less activity on Michal’s brilliant blog Dreams in Clouds. His honest writing style comes straight from the heart, and is remarkable in its fluidity considering English is not his native tongue. Not one to be too nosy or intrusive, I let things play out, hoping that my Czech companion would hopefully find the time and inspiration to upload another bit of prose. Sure enough, in the autumn I received an invitation to Michal’s wedding with his new bride Moeko. It seems that the relationship with Thuy had gone sour, and the chaos of a broken relationship, blossoming love, and visa woes took precedence over climbing adventures and blog posts.

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Unable to attend the ceremony, I sent my regards and an invitation of my own to the Hiking in Japan gathering in the Suzuka mountains of Mie Prefecture, just one week after his wedding ceremony. With such a hectic schedule, I had my doubts as to whether the newlywed would be able to attend. After arriving at the campsite, I headed up the trail towards the summit of Mt. Nyūdō with a couple of companions, and halfway up the steep slopes, a lone figure descended from the ridge above. It was Michal, smiling in the early afternoon sun after a morning ascent of Mt. Kama and a long loop along the ridge back down to the campsite. I gave a high five, congratulating him on his mammoth climb and told him to save me a place around the campfire that evening.

Once settled back into camp, Michal opened up, telling a gut-wrenching story about his early winter ascent of Mt. Kasa, having arrived on the summit after nightfall and passing out immediately after digging out an improvised bivy directly under the summit shrine. The following day was a hair-raising drop through avalanche terrain down the Kasa Shindō route back to Shin-hodaka hot spring. He ended his story with a phrase that still sticks with me to this day. Even though the climb was filled with perilous moments, “it really was the best time”, as laugher erupted around the campfire. Such was the influence of Michal’s innate story-telling prowess that not a single camper was left without awe and respect.

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At the conclusion of the gathering, Michal and I shared a bus and train back to Osaka, where he did open up a bit to me about the changes in his life. Again, I did not pry into his personal affairs, allowing him to divulge as much or as little as he saw fit. “I’m planning a challenging climb next year”, he stated, not divulging any details of his intentions. Perhaps he preferred it this way, not wanting his friends or loved ones to worry too much about his safety and instead just enjoying his wonderful blog posts and captivating videos upon completion of his epic ascents.

“Well, both winter and spring are very dangerous. I also do not have enough experience to manage the risk safely. I risk a lot and that makes me scared. And yet I cannot give up. Risk is like a drug. I get used to it and I need more to give me the same feeling of challenge. If I do not stop, some day the risk will be bigger than i can manage and I will have an accident. I love life so much. I do not want to bring myself to the edge of life and death.”

– Michal Vojta, July 2016

In late August, just one week shy of his 30th birthday, Michal embarked on his mountaineering masterpiece. It was supposed to be the culmination of everything that he had learned and done up until this point. It was supposed to prove his point of pure alpinism, unhindered by man-made rules and paradigms.

Except that it wasn’t meant to be.

On the 25th of August, 2016, Michal reached the summit of the Eiger via the western flank of the mountain. It was a solo climb of the iconic peak in the Swiss Alps, a mountain that perhaps he had on his radar since childhood. Shortly after summiting, while crossing a snowfield high up on the western ridge, he lost his footing, sliding nearly 150 meters down the perilous slopes. He did not survive that tumble.

The following day, after failing to report back to his accommodation, a rescue helicopter was sent out and recovered his body. News of this tragic event spread like wildfire through the Japanese climbing community, and with no witnesses to the accident, it has left more questions than answers.

Was this his magnum opus, a final climb before reaching the age of 30 and finally calming his appetite for pushing the boundaries? Or would his summiting of the mighty Eiger only continue to feed his endless yearning to walk the fine line?

Michal is survived by his wife Moeko and his family back in Brno. His influence on the hiking community here in Japan will not be forgotten, and on every mountain I climb from here on out, I’ll be thinking of you Michal Vojta, as you live in your eternal dream in the clouds.

 

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Hakusan Chapter 2 – Revenge

My first trip to Hakusan was a total washout, and ever since that dreadful ascent back in 2004 I was looking for a chance to appreciate the mountain without having to bag a peak on the list. That’s the beauty of a re-climb, as there’s no pressure to summit the mountain at all. With that in mind I once again teamed up with Fumito, who was still recovering from a rock climbing trip to nearby Gozaisho. He picked me up at Nagoya station shortly before noon and then pointed the car north, through Gifu Prefecture and then onto route 158, where we passed by the trailhead to Mt. Arashima. It was very tempting to pull the car off to the derelict ski resort for an afternoon ascent, but we had our eyes set on the big hike tomorrow.

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We arrived at Ichinose just after 4pm and set up camp near the river in the tranquil campground. Due to the immense popularity of Hakusan, private cars are no longer allowed to Bettodai during the weekend and Obon peak, so we simply had to wait for the first shuttle bus at 5am the following morning. We killed time in the rustic hot spring bath across from the bus stop, soaking up the minerals that we hoped would provide some extra energy for the impending climb.

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The alarm rang at 4am and we quickly sprang to work, cooking up a bowl of pasta and fresh coffee while breaking down camp in the dark. By the time we reached the bus stop at 4:45am, the queue snaked around the corner and we were denied entry to the 5am bus. Luckily there was another bus that left just 10 minutes later and we piled in for the 20-minute journey to the trailhead. Bettodeai was just as I had remembered it, though with tenfold the crowds. There’s something very unfortunate about hiking during the summer holiday peak, and that is having to share the trail with several hundred other climbers. The parking lot at Ichinose can accommodate 750 vehicles, so an attendance of over 1000 people is not unheard of in this season.

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As we prepared our gear, I noticed that every single hiker seemed to be crossing the suspension bridge which leads to the  Saboshindo route. This trail was closed during my first visit to the mountain, so I was very tempted to explore this route. However, it seemed best to avoid the throngs of people and use this route on the descent, so instead of crossing the bridge, we turned left and entered the Kankoshindo trail. This is the same trail that I took during my first ascent, but it honestly did not look familiar at all. The first part of the path climbed through a healthy broadleaf forest that sat still in the early morning glow. Fumito set off on a snail’s pace from the start, and I was really starting to wonder if we would even make it above the treeline before dark, but he soon found his rhythm and we walked in unison towards the ridge line. We spent most of the first hour in complete solitude, once being passed by a trail-running duo who seemed more intent on getting exercise than on enjoying the scenery.

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The map said to allow 1 hour and 40 minutes to reach the ridge, but we did it in just under 60 minutes. So much for Fumito’s slow pace. Even with our snail’s advance we were still passing groups along the way. The ridge marks the point where the Kanko route merges with the Zenjodo route, the traditional path up the mountain. In ancient times, these so-called “paths of meditation” converged from provinces surrounding the sacred peak. As we turned right and followed the worn stone steps along the undulating ridge, I thought of the 8th century Buddhist monk Taicho, who declared the volcano a holy site. Obviously he was drawn to the unparalleled beauty of the place – the wildflowers covering the slopes like a warm, soft blanket, the lingering snowfields which loiter around in the hot summer months, waiting for mother nature to reapply their coats of frozen paint. His devotion to the mountains spawned an entire religious sect, and this route we were now following led devotees from Echizen province to the sacred highlands above both the trees and clouds.

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We settled into a steady rhythm, pausing at a large overhanging boulder that stretched all the way across the trail. We ducked under the protruding slab and sat, absorbing the fresh rays of sunlight that by now had made their way over the summit plateau directly in front of us. The warmth of the sun also brought the cloud, which threatened to swallow us and transform the mountain into that all-too-familiar world of fuzzy mist. We picked up the pace, reaching the emergency hut at Tonogaike just as my bowels released their pent-up rage. If not for the clean toilet at the recently reconstructed hut I would have surely made quite a mess on the trail.

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The hut was in shambles during my last visit, but the sparkling new shelter would make for a fantastic place to overnight if not for the lack of fresh water. We were now above 2000 meters in height, and had a rather daunting ascent of 700 more vertical meters until reaching the summit. We were truly in a race against the clouds, and one in which we would likely not win.

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Continuing unabated, we soon reached the junction of the Sabo shindo route, where the crowds increased a hundredfold. All of those hikers crossing the bridge at the start of the hike had now caught up to us, and we followed the freight train of sleep-deprived zombies up above the tree line. The path flattened out in a broad plateau, with wooden planks constructed to help control the massive crowds. These wooden walkways certainly were not here during my first trip, but they did make the going much smoother until they petered out at a headwall of a steep, boulder-strewn stretch of mountain. Step by step we advanced, the steep rise spitting us out right at the doorstep of Murodo village. By village I truly mean it. In addition to the sprawling visitor’s center, there was now a fully functioning post office, souvenir shop, and cafeteria that could accommodate hundreds of hungry hikers. The complex officially sleeps 750 people, but I imagine that on this particular day, they were prepared to accept double that number.

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We perched ourselves on a bench on the far side of the A-frame structure, just in front of the main shrine that was currently being renovated and completely reconstructed. The pockets of the Hakusan sect truly run deep. The summit of Mt. Gozen floated in and out of the cloud like a seal bobbing in a turbulent sea. With a bit of luck we’d catch her during the ebb and not the flow.

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I forced four Calorie Mate bars into my parched mouth, the dry biscuits sticking to my palate as an indicator to increase the fluid intake. With 400 calories now beginning their conversion into energy, I took the lead, marching slowly but steadily up the array of stone steps that lead to the high point. I pushed all the way to the high point without a break, as the clouds had once again pushed off the plateau. At the top of Mt. Gozen, I finally caught sight of what makes Hakusan so special, for Mt. Gozen is just one of a trio of volcanic cones, dotted with pristine volcanic lakes and patches of lingering snow.

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Dropping my pack among the exposed rocks, I chatted with a Vietnamese team of climbers who had come from Kanazawa for a taste of Japan’s alpine offerings. Most of the other hikers were either from the Hokuriku or Kansai regions, so I felt right at home exchanging pleasantries and mountain information in the warm sunshine. It’s not very often that you can sit at the summit of a sea-facing 2700-meter volcano in calm winds and a t-shirt and live to tell about it.

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Fumito eventually reached the top, and the two of us drifted into various states of reverie. I reflected upon the stark difference of scenery that fog-free weather can make, while Fumito sucked on his cigarette like it was his last. He’s tried to give up the addiction several times, but the urge to puff had always been stronger. Regardless, he is probably the most mindful smoker in this entire country, always retreating to an unoccupied corner to satisfy his urges.

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The cloud had once again swept over the plateau, so instead of dropping down to the lakes, we retreated back to Murodo in time for lunch. We feasted on udon noodles in their clear Kansai broth, a taste I have grown fond of over the years. I can’t stand the dark soups of the Kanto region. It’s as if Tokugawa Ieyasu forgot to bring along chefs from Kyoto when he moved the capital to Edo and had to improvise his broth by adding soy sauce, the worst possible ingredient available at the time. The same can be said of monjayaki, which looks just like a failed attempt at okonomiyaki, made by someone who had never eaten a real version of Osaka’s staple dish.

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The noodles fueled us for the long climb back to Bettodeai. Back at the junction we veered left and onto the Sabo shindo, which switchbacked through the thick fog and down to an emergency hut that had also been recently rebuilt. Along the way, we passed several hundred other climbers, all of whom were planning on overnighting at Murodo. Among the throngs were a healthy smattering of children under the age of 10. I will only put my daughter through such hardships if the request for punishment is voluntary.

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Again, we were the only people descending this route, which seems preposterous as it is a much easier drop than the Kango path that we took on the ascent. I would much rather climb an impossibly steep trail than suffer through a knee-knocking descent. Besides, isn’t a clockwise circumambulation a sign of respect to the deities?

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The route, to our utter astonishment, skirts a concrete forest road in immaculate condition. The concrete follows a mountain stream until terminating at a corrugated-metal structure housing a pulley system for transporting supplies to the mountain huts. With the system resembling that of a ski gondola, it’s no wonder they just don’t open a proper ropeway for lazy tourists. Perhaps that is something in the works in time for the 2020 Olympics, in which one of the events will probably be ‘Sacred Peak Bagging’.

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Adjacent to the gondola structure is what can only be described as a public works project gone awry, a virtual lego-block, multi-tiered network of concrete dams that rises the entire length of the valley to source of the stream itself. One strong volcanic tremor would likely send the entire structure cascading down to the trailhead far below. Despite Hakusan’s designation as both a national park and one of Japan’s 3 most sacred peaks, the environmental destruction continues unchecked.

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Back in the treeline, the trail meandered through a pristine forest of towering hardwoods. In these healthy forests, I always scan the tops of the larger trees in order to catch sight of any black bears lounging in the natural hammocks above the chaos below. Pausing beneath once such tree, I raised the lens, only to find later upon closer inspection that there may have been an ursine beast lazing in the afternoon sun. You be the judge.

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Fumito and I were both in pain by the time we reached the shuttle bus stop at the trailhead. My shoes have overstayed their welcome, creating hotspots on my battered feet from the worn-out treads and weakened cushioning system. Or maybe I’m just getting too old for these 1500-meter vertical ascent/descent day hikes.